'Simpsons' writer describes how writers' room is like hevruta

Stern, who is the younger brother of the wonderful character actor, Daniel Stern, got his start in television writing for The Wonder Years.

(photo credit: YES/20TH TELEVISION)

‘Confrontation is the key to storytelling,” said David M. Stern – a comedy writer who has worked a great deal in animated series and who has penned some of the most iconic episodes of The Simpsons – on a visit to Jerusalem earlier this week.

He had just been told about the concept of hevruta, how Talmud scholars study in pairs to learn and comment on a text through talking – and often arguing it out. Comedy series are generally written by teams of writers working in what is known as a writers’ room, which are famous for their contentious and highly charged atmosphere, where writers hammer out episodes together under time pressure in an atmosphere of camaraderie and competition. Stern said that he could see how the writers’ room had grown out of the hevruta model: “Essentially the culture for a writers’ room not only exists here already but was probably founded here.”

He was in Jerusalem as a participant in the first International Content Tech Assembly/New Storytelling-New Tools, which was run by the Jerusalem Film & Television Fund together with the Jerusalem Development Authority. Other guests from abroad included Amanda Lorber, director of television development at Disney+; Vince Gerardis, executive producer of Game of Thrones; and Craig Sims, VP of business development and talent at Spin Master. They enjoyed a whirlwind tour of Israel and had meetings and master classes with young filmmakers and students in Jerusalem. Just that morning, Stern had screened one of The Simpsons episodes he wrote for students and was still on a high from seeing it in that setting.

Yoram Honig, the director and founder of the Jerusalem Film & Television Fund, who is leaving soon to pursue new projects, started the venture in 2008. Since then, the fund has shifted the focus of filmmaking in Israel away from Tel Aviv and to the capital, even offering cash rebates for Jerusalem-based productions. Honig has also turned the city into a headquarters for animated filmmaking, so inviting Stern was a natural choice. 

It was Honig who referenced the hevruta idea as he introduced Stern, who pondered the similarities and differences to a writers’ room: “With a hevruta, though, they’re discussing a document that doesn’t change, as opposed to the writers’ room, where you’re building the document and rewriting it through many drafts, so a little less of the back and forth and a little more production but it’s close.... It’s a crucible setting, and the interaction and other people’s ideas on your work is the key to Hollywood television writing in particular.”

 DAVID M. STERN in front of an image from ‘Ugly Americans.’  (credit: EINAT KAPACH) DAVID M. STERN in front of an image from ‘Ugly Americans.’ (credit: EINAT KAPACH)

Stern should know, since he is a veteran of The Simpsons’ writers’ room, which created and continues to create one of the funniest and most original series in television history. Stern, who is the younger brother of the wonderful character actor, Daniel Stern, got his start in television writing for The Wonder Years. Following his work on this series, he got a deal “to write a pilot with my hero,” James L. Brooks, the writer/director/producer behind The Simpsons, which runs on the Fox Network. 

Brooks' other work

BROOKS IS ALSO known for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, as well as the films Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, and is revered by many as one of the smartest, funniest people ever in the entertainment industry. 

While that pilot didn’t work out, Brooks brought Stern into The Simpsons early on, where he wrote a number of episodes about America’s favorite yellow, four-fingered family that are considered standouts in a show that has somehow managed to be brilliantly funny for 33 years. Episodes Stern wrote include “Bart Gets an F,” “Principal Charming” and “Homer Alone.” 

While Bart and Homer are probably the two characters with the most airtime over the years, Marge is a Simpson, too, and Stern gave the blue-haired everymom some of her best episodes. In “Homer Alone,” for example, Marge has a nervous breakdown and is sent away, leaving Homer to cope on his own. Stern is also credited with developing Patty and Selma, aka the Bouvier sisters, Marge’s joyfully selfish and quirky siblings.

“Right away I knew how great it was, but I thought it would last a season,” he said. In a writers’ room filled with great talent, “I hung on for dear life.” Some of the more veteran writers had been together at Harvard and the National Lampoon, he recalled, but writing this kind of anarchic comedy was new to him. In all, he wrote nine episodes of the show and was a creative consultant and producer on more than 70.

He enjoyed collaborating with Matt Groening, the comic artist who created The Simpsons with Brooks and earlier had drawn the cult comic strip, Life is Hell, which started out running in underground newspapers. “Matt Groening is a genius and a visionary... He’s still an underground comic in his head.” Stern also had kind words for Sam Simon, the co-creator who served as showrunner during much of the time he worked on the show, whom he called the show’s “unsung hero.”

Asked how the show managed to be so funny and to incorporate so much pointed social and political satire for so many years – for example, Homer, who is more interested in doughnuts than cooling rods, is in charge of safety for a nuclear power plant – he said, “To be truly different requires courage and artistic freedom, business executives don’t get that... Jim [Brooks] was our protector, and [Fox Network founder] Barry Diller brought the series to the network and stayed out of it... and this incredible machine was allowed to blossom with no network interference.” That and the fact that “we delivered the goods,” is what got it on the air and has kept it running, he said.

“Jim provided an umbrella and heart and emphasis on always being real... Cut these characters and they bleed.”

David M. Stern

Stern has left and returned a number of times but has also worked on other shows, including Ugly Americans. Another innovative series, Ugly Americans combines satire and black comedy and is set in a dystopian New York City where humans coexist with all manner of monsters and demons. The show follows a social worker who tries to integrate non-humans into society and is dating the devil’s daughter.

While he is currently mulling the idea of writing a novel – “I still have novels on a pedestal” – he is also developing a new series that will combine animation and live-action and which sounds great, but about which he cannot yet officially divulge any details. And as he talks about The Simpsons with so much energy and affection, telling the story of how he helped turn Willie the Groundskeeper into a Scot, it seems as if he might have another idea or two for an episode of that show, which, he said, “just gets stronger and smarter.”